Finding Utopia

The idea of Nirvana is a popular one for many people. Who wouldn’t want to find themselves in a utopia where the world seems to bend to your every wish? For me, it’s hard to define what that place might look like, or even that such a place could exist. For most of my life, I have operated under the assumption that I was in the minority in this view and most people had not only a belief in their ability to reach this lofty ideal, but also a clear idea of said goal. Conventional twenty-something wisdom might suggest that by the family rearing forties, one would have found and transcended just such a state of mind. Fortunately while languishing in the wasteland of my thirties, I have realised that clear images of perfection are at best a dream and at worst a trophy that is always just out of reach (Descartes and Nietzsche’s ideas that happiness is fleeting and part of the journey rather than the destination has always appealed to me). Ultimately, we cannot expect to find a place or a state of mind that is both flexible enough to appeal to everyone nor stable enough to withstand the change of perspectives brought on by the passage of time and experience. Despite this, there are many who have tried, and probably a few who would disagree with my assessment.

Looking over the Mekong from Utopia.

Looking over the Mekong from Utopia.

I came across a place while exploring the alleyways of Luang Prabang (the Lao tourist hub and UNESCO-listed mountain hideaway) that claimed to be one such place –at least in name – and my journey there afforded me a new perspective on the subjective nature of perfection. Luang Prabang’s Utopiawas certainly one where not everyone approved with the label. Luang Prabang’s Utopia is a bar, restaurant and apparent backpacker flophouse nestled on the fringe of the UNESCO-listed town which itself is hidden away in the mountainous centre of Laos’ Northern provinces. While I wouldn’t quite be so bold as to use the word paradise to describe the area – I certainly wouldn’t begrudge a vigorous discussion on the appropriateness of the term.

I had first heard of Utopia (the bar, not the ideological notion of perfection) on my first couple of days in Laos while drifting through an area called Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) in the country’s south which – as we were there in the low season – was in itself as idyllic a location as I could have wished for.  A few south-bound travellers sharing a Beer-Lao with us as we reclined beside the Mekong scoffing spring rolls were the first to bring the fabled backpacker Mecca to our attention. They claimed that there was a place in Luang Prabang which rivalled our current location for both atmosphere and location. They had been there days earlier and professed that it was certainly worthy of its lofty title and added that it drew a solid crowd of itinerant travellers to boot. My interest was certainly piqued and it was at that moment that my pilgrimage to Utopia began.

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Almost everyone we came across from then on – it seemed – had either been there or was certainly going to track it down. Before we left Four Thousand Islands, we had met a dozen people who aimed to gauge Utopia’s claims of perfection or quietly agreed that it was worth a visit. On one occasion we spent an afternoon debating the merits of leaving our current island hideaway for another that might rival it (I still haven’t asked Galactabunny (www.galactabunny.org) if he made it there and I need to get back to following his awesome reflections as he travels the world).

As the modern thirty something wannabe traveller that I am, my next step was to hijack the Don Det Bungalows’ internet jibbers and bury my face in my phone to troll the forums for clues – breadcrumbs to piece together my expectations for this so-called Laotian El Dorado of beers, beats and backpackers (I’m paraphrasing here). It is at this stage – ankle-deep in Trip Advisor comments that things start to become murky. It turns out that one person’s Utopia was another’s ‘Dingy, unclean and bad service’ (again, paraphrasing). As I read post after post I swung from optimistic to doubtful, from hopeful to sceptical until I was thoroughly confused. Surely a pilgrimage should have a destination with a clearer approval rating than this!

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As we headed north, tales of Utopia – both shining with adoration and murky with disdain – came to us from south-bound travellers and the casual tips (even with an internet connection and a smart phone, a meal and a chat with another adventurer is still a traveller’s greatest ally on the road) varied from ‘Do not miss’ to ‘Do not bother’. By the time we reached Luang Prabang, I had no idea what to expect and it was only out of sheer curiosity that we found ourselves riding towards our goal on the third day in town.

Utopia can be found down a residential alleyway, just further along than you assume that it should be (we nearly turned back as I’m sure many others have). Filled with trepidation, we walked through the doors and were met with… Nobody! The place was empty. Perhaps two patrons sat in the main pagoda bar area on worn cushions as Credence Clearwater blasted from speakers around the gardens as if to highlight the clichéd subtext of our journey. I bought a Beer Lao and a fresh coconut (why not give in to it, The Eagles were playing now) and wandered through the gardens to a rickety bamboo balcony. We sat drinking and watching a passing thunderstorm play over the mountains and light rain began to fall on the river before us. We sat in contemplation for an hour or two and a few patrons came and went as did the storm before we headed back to our hotel for dinner with our quest behind us and our curiosity satisfied.

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We were in Lao in early October on the cusp of high season, so things were quiet, but I hear that the place can be very busy at times although I was more taken with the classic motorcycles on display than the venue’s party potential. The quest for this Holy Grail made me realise that the guidebook-chasing, forum-following travel trend (of which I am most definitely an active part) is fraught with uncertainty and it is important to take the advice of others with a grain of salt. One person’s Utopia could very easily be another’s purgatory.

This brings us to the moment where I impart to you the sage-like wisdom of my experience of Utopia. How did it stack up? Was this Utopia everything its presumptuous name implied?

Well – it wouldn’t be much of a quest for you if I told you would it? Good luck!

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